Effective July 1, 2020, the Virginia Values Act (“VVA”) offers sweeping protections for Virginia workers against several categories of discrimination. The law is broader in scope than some similar federal laws, covers smaller employers than federal laws, and unlike most federal employment laws, is not subject to a cap on compensatory damages. In short, it is a powerful law for protecting the rights of Virginia employees.
This post will discuss some of the key provisions of the VVA, which amends the Virginia Human Rights Act (“VHRA”). The bulk of the new law as it relates to employment rights is codified at VA Code §§ 2.2-3900-3908.
Scope of Prohibited Discrimination
The VVA makes it illegal under the VHRA for an employer to:
Fail or refuse to hire, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to such individual’s compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions including lactation, age, status as a veteran, or national origin.
VA Code § 2.2-3905(B). The prohibition against race discrimination includes a prohibition on hairstyle discrimination. This is because a distinct piece of legislative, House Bill 1514, clarified:
The terms “because of race” or “on the basis of race” or terms of similar import when used in reference to discrimination in the Code and acts of the General Assembly include because of or on the basis of traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.
VA Code § 2.2-3901(B). Also notably, House Bill 827 expanded the VHRA’s prohibition against pregnancy discrimination to allow a cause of action against an employer who
refuse[s] to make reasonable accommodation to the known limitations of a person related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
VA Code § 2.2-3904(A). Under the law, these reasonable pregnancy accommodations may include:
more frequent or longer bathroom breaks, breaks to express breast milk, access to a private location other than a bathroom for the expression of breast milk, acquisition or modification of equipment or access to or modification of employee seating, a temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring, a modified work schedule, light duty assignments, and leave to recover from childbirth.
VA Code § 2.2-3904(A). The amended VHRA also makes it unlawful for employers to retaliate against workers for seeking such accommodations. See VA Code § 2.2-3905(B)(7).
Motivating Factor Causation Standard for Discriminatory Employment Practices
The amended VHRA makes discrimination for any of the specified reasons unlawful if the discrimination was a “motivating factor” of an employment practice, even if other, non-discriminatory, factors also played a role in the practice. This generally makes it unlawful, except where provided elsewhere in the law, for
an employer to use race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, status as a veteran, or national origin as a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivate the practice.
VA Code § 2.2-3905(B)(6).
Employer Defenses and Exceptions
The amended VHRA does include some Title VII-esque exceptions from its prohibitions on certain types of employment discrimination. These include:
- Where “religion, sex, or age is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation” of that particular employer;
- Where the employer is a religious educational institution and it hires or employs employees of its particular religion;
- Where the employer applies different standards of compensation, or different terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, pursuant to a “bona fide seniority or merit system,” or a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, or to employees who work in different locations, provided that such differences are not the result of an intention to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, status as a veteran, or national origin;
- Where an employer gives and acts upon the results of any “professionally developed ability test,” provided that such test, its administration, or an action upon the results is not designed, intended, or used to discriminate on any of the prohibited bases;
- Where an employer provide reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, and lactation, when such accommodations are requested by the employee; and
- Where an employer to conditions employment or premises access based upon citizenship where the employer is subject to any requirement imposed in the interest of the national security of the United States under any security program in effect pursuant to or administered under any statute or regulation of the federal government or any executive order of the President of the United States.
VA Code § 2.2-3905(C).
Importantly, the amended VHRA prohibits retaliation for opposing unlawful employment practices or for filing a complaint or participating in an investigation under the VHRA. VA Code § 2.2-3905(B)(7).
The amended VHRA has a slightly broader scope than Title VII and the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) when it comes to which employers are subject to its requirements. Title VII generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees; the ADEA applies to employers with 20 or more employees. In cases of discrimination that are not unlawful discharges, the amended VHRA parallels Title VII, applying to employers “employing 15 or more employees for each working day in each of 20 or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year, and any agent of such a person.” In cases of unlawful discharge, the amended VHRA covers more employers than Title VII. When the unlawful discharge is not based on age, the amended VHRA applies to employers with more than 5 employees. When the unlawful discharge is based on age, the amended VHRA applies to employers with more than 5 but fewer than 20 employees. VA Code § 2.2-3905(A).
Unlike the federal ADEA, which only allows recovery of lost wages and liquidated damages, the amended VHRA allows general compensatory / emotional distress and punitive damages for age discrimination. The practical effect of these additional remedies is that the VHRA covers more types of age discrimination than the ADEA. This is because individuals subject to distressing age-based harassment at work, but who do not suffer lost wages, may have a viable legal claim for damages under the amended VHRA, where they did not have a viable claim for damages under the ADEA.
Damages Provisions: Uncapped Compensatory Damages and a Higher Punitive Damages Cap
The amended VHRA allows for a private cause of action in state court. VA Code § 2.2-3908(A). Unlike Title VII claims, which are subject to caps on compensatory and punitive damages ranging from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of the employer, claims brought under the amended VHRA are not subject to a cap on compensatory damages. See VA Code § 2.2-3908(B). Punitive damages are subject to Virginia’s $350,000 cap. VA Code § 8.01-38.1.
Therefore, under the amended VHRA, even a small employer could be required to pay compensatory damages of more than $300,000, plus punitive damages of up to $350,000. This makes the damages provision of the amended VHRA far more powerful than Title VII. This is because Title VII limits the exposure of the smallest employers to $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages combined, and limits the exposures of the largest employers to $300,000 in compensatory and punitive damages combined. The amended VHRA has no cap on compensatory damages and a $350,000 cap on punitive damages.
In addition, the amended VHRA provides that a prevailing party may be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.
Similar to Title VII and the ADEA, the amended VHRA requires employees to follow an administrative procedure before bringing their claims in court. Specifically, an employee seeking to pursue a lawsuit against an employer for unlawful discrimination under the VHRA must first file a complaint with the Virginia Division of Human Rights. The complaint should provide sufficient details about “the time, place, and facts surrounding the alleged unlawful discrimination.” VA Code §§ 2.2-3908(A) & 2.2-3907(A).
After the complaint is perfected, the Division will serve a charge on the respondent and send a notice to all parties with important information. VA Code § 2.2-3907(B). The parties have the option of agreeing to submit the matter to voluntary mediation. VA Code § 2.2-3907(C). If the parties do not agree to mediation, or if mediation is not successful, the Division will investigate “to determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe the alleged discrimination occurred.” VA Code § 2.2-3907(D).
If the Division concludes there is no reasonable cause, it will dismiss the charge and issue to the employee a notice of his right to commence a civil action in court. VA Code § 2.2-3907(E). This is similar to the right-to-sue letters issued by the EEOC in federal Title VII cases, which create a 90-day window for filing suit. VA Code § 2.2-3907(E).
If the Division concludes there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred, the Division must notify the parties and “shall immediately endeavor to eliminate any alleged unlawful discriminatory practice by informal methods.” VA Code § 2.2-3907(F). If such a resolution proves “unworkable,” the Division will be given notice of his right to commence a civil action. Id.
During the administrative investigation, either the Division or the complainant may also ask a court for certain temporary relief, pending final determination of the administrative proceedings. VA Code § 2.2-3907(G). However, such a petition must contain a certification by the Division that the particular matter presents exceptional circumstances in which irreparable injury will result from unlawful discrimination in the absence of temporary relief. Id.
Similar to the federal EEOC process, the employee can request that the Division issue notice of suit rights if (1) 180 days have passed since the complaint was filed or (2) the Division determines the investigation is unlikely to conclude within 180 days. VA Code § 2.2-3907(H).
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